One of the longest recorded sermons preached by the Lord Jesus is found in the fifth, sixth, and seventh chapters of Matthew. The immediate audience to whom Jesus spoke included the scribes and Pharisees—the scrupulously religious experts of the Law who assumed they were perfect in righteousness. Also present were many ordinary Jews who assumed they were acceptable to God because they were the children of Abraham. Everyone who heard Him thought he was on his way to heaven. But Jesus challenged his hearers’ views on the Law and God’s Kingdom. He demanded humility, repentance, and the forgiveness of sins that can only be found by following Him. Then, as He was concluding the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord Jesus added this warning:
Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? And in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity (Matt. 7:21–23).
This should strike us today as a profoundly startling announcement. Christ’s statement here should encourage a careful self-examination. These words present us with a dreadful warning that we ignore at our peril.
The Scriptures do not give us much insight into how large a group may be refused entrance to heaven, other than to say that it is “many.” It will include the ones represented in a later parable by the seed that sprouted in stony ground but withered in the heat, and the ones that sprouted in thorny ground but were choked out by other concerns (Matt. 13:3–9). It will also include those who are represented as the tares sown among the wheat, which cannot be distinguished and separated out until the harvest at the Lord’s return (Matt. 13:24–30). Within the context of the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord warns about wolves in sheep’s clothing that come in to destroy. So these would also include those who masquerade as believers for their own destructive and self-seeking purposes. The common characteristic of those whom Jesus will turn away will be that each presents an outward appearance of faith without possessing the reality of it.
Who Will Be Refused Entrance to Heaven?
The Intentionally Insincere
These include the wolves in sheep’s clothing that are among us by stealth, seeking to harm God’s people. But there may be many who are merely behaving according to the expectations of others. Young people from Christian homes often grow up in church doing what parents, youth leaders, pastors, or teachers expect but never trusting Christ themselves. We must remember that attending Sunday school, memorizing verses, singing songs, or conforming to grooming standards never saved anyone. We can be sure that most congregations include teenagers and adults who are putting on a front simply because someone else expects certain behavior from them.
Others of the intentionally insincere may be seeking personal gain. They may have joined a church in order to impress someone, to fit in with a particular group, or to get permission to date or marry someone. There are places and situations in which church membership can boost one’s political, business, or social standing. Some people make a profession of faith in order to get a job or a promotion, receive economic relief from the church, or even to make a living. There may be members, adherents, employees, or even ministerial staff members in any church who are there merely for what they can get out of it.
The Sincere Followers of a False Theology
Obviously, those who are purposefully hypocritical will be among those who are refused entrance to heaven. But it would be dangerous to assume that these are the only ones who will be there. Actually, Christ’s warning implies that a large percentage of this group will be surprised by the news that they are not acceptable. There will be many who think that their outward appearance of belonging to Christ guaranteed its reality. They will protest, “I was sincere; I tried to please You.”
These would include people who sincerely follow a false theology. Mormons believe they will inherit eternal life, but the Christ they claim to follow is not the Christ of the Bible. Likewise, the Jehovah’s Witnesses make Jesus less than God and believe their salvation depends upon their own efforts. The followers of such cults may be surprised to be turned away when face-to-face with the risen Lord. But the shock may go deeper for the devout Roman Catholic who has trusted his destiny to the intercession of the Roman Church, performance of the sacraments, recitation of prayers, worship of Mary, and the repetitive sacrifice of Christ in the Mass. It is significant that this same Roman Church is now embracing much of the modern charismatic theology of miraculous sign gifts. Many who are claiming to heal and cast out demons and do many marvelous works in the name of “Christ” have been deluded. They are following “another Christ,” not the Christ of the Bible. Those who follow such false theologies may be very sincere in their trust of their system to save them, but they are sincerely wrong. They will be among those surprised to hear Jesus say, “I never knew you: depart from me.”
The Sincere Followers of a Distorted Gospel
Similar to the error just described, but more subtle, is the danger of following a distorted gospel. For instance, much of the true gospel is missing in the modern charismatic movement. There is such a strong emphasis on works and experience that many people in charismatic churches routinely ignore or even flatly deny what is written in the Word of God. Many seek extra-Biblical revelations and spiritual “promptings” for their guidance, rather than relying on the Bible. While they may have amazing experiences or witness apparent displays of power, these do not prove that they are Christ’s. Many have been deluded and led astray to their own condemnation by a gospel that must be validated by some ecstatic experience, “power encounter,” or “word of truth.”
How Can We Avoid a False Profession?
This is a very serious question, and one that the Scriptures challenge us to consider carefully: “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves” (2 Cor. 13:5). When asked how one knows he is saved, most professing believers will respond by describing something they did, not something they believe. While insisting that they do not believe one can be saved by his works, many base the certainty of their salvation on their response to an “altar call” and their repetition of the words of a “sinners’ prayer.” On the other hand, many doubt their salvation because they are not sure they did something correctly. We must be certain that we do not teach people to base their confidence in their salvation on saying the right words in the right order or in the right place.
According to the Scriptures, before a person can be saved he must admit his personal sinfulness. Paul asserts, “There is none righteous” (Rom. 3:10) and that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). A person must also recognize his personal helplessness. Paul also tells us, “there is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God” (Rom. 3:11), that we “were dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1), and that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Our condemnation is certain, and we are helpless to prevent it.
That is the bad news. But the good news is that God has provided a remedy for us. A person must believe that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died and rose again to pay the penalty of our sin. Nothing less will do. Paul tells us that “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). This is not simply believing that Jesus loves you, but that Jesus is the Christ of God, and that He died as the innocent substitute for the guilty—each of us. But even if one will acknowledge this, he still must ask God’s forgiveness and place his confidence in what Christ has done for him, not in what he can do for himself.
One’s salvation is a matter of his heart attitude of belief prompting him to call upon the Lord Jesus Christ in confidence that He can and will save him from his sins (Romans 10:9, 10).
However, there is one final matter to consider. A true believer should look for signs of spiritual growth. As Jesus said, “Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father.” Further explanation is found in 2 Peter 1:5–10 and in Hebrews 12:5–11.
One’s salvation is not directly related to his actions. Many will give outward evidence of submission to the Lordship of Christ and still be turned away. However, if a person truly believes, it will be reflected in his actions and attitudes as the image of Christ is formed in him through the inner working of the Holy Spirit. A person is in Christ if he can say, based on his own heart’s belief, “I acknowledge that my sin makes it impossible for me to please God, who is my holy and righteous Judge, and that I deserve everlasting punishment. I believe that Jesus was and is the Son of God, who died and rose again to save me from my sins. I have asked Him to forgive me and make me a new person in Him.” There should be evidence, however imperfect, of the fruit of the Spirit being developed in his life. This is confirmed by the experience of great conviction for sin.
Immediately following His warning about false professions, Jesus made the analogy about the wise man who built his house on the rock and the foolish man who built his house on the sand to illustrate real faith (Matt. 7:24–27). The two structures look alike. The only difference is in their foundations, which become evident only by their responses to the storms. When the storms come and beat on the house that is one’s life, the house will stand if it is built on the solid rock of Jesus Christ, or it will collapse if its only foundation was shifting sands. God wants the believer to be confident of his salvation. But many have a false sense of confidence. We each benefit from careful examination of our own hearts. And we answer to God for the integrity of our ministry. Are we trying to build a ministry on quick and easy professions? Or are we willing to challenge people to be genuinely transformed by the grace of God through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord?
Dr. Paul W. Downey is pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Athens, Georgia.
(Originally published in FrontLine • January/February 2002. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)